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November 28, 2007

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'When Someone Beeps You, You Know the Reason'

The new issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication has a terrific paper on the rules of ‘beeping’. That’s when somebody calls your mobile phone, lets it rings once, and hangs up. It’s a totally established mode of communication in places where airtime is still precious, most notably Africa.

It’s a ping in the purest sense: Exactly one bit of information is conveyed. Ah, but what a bit! The article defines a taxonomy of beeps — the callback beep (“call me back, because I’m out of airtime”), the relational beep (“I’m thinking of you”), and (get ready) the pre-negotiated instrumental beep (“yo, come pick me up now, as we agreed”).

But really, it’s all about the anecdotes. Because there are all sorts of interesting social dynamics involved. For instance:

Lillian’s lunchtime customers at her restaurant beep her daily, demanding a callback. She explains, “Customers beep to check on whether there is food left. Some are customers who are going to bring me money. So, when I see a number that I know, I have to call back, so I use a unit or two. They are some whom I don’t call back because they have nothing constructive [profitable] to tell me.” Like Patrick, Lillian says she never beeps customers.

And of course:

If you are chasing after a lady, you cannot beep. You have to call. Beeping is for friends. When a girl you do not know well beeps you, you have to call back if you are interested. You cannot even text. She has to see that the effort is being made. Borrow a friends’ phone if you do not have airtime.

What I love most about this is how contextual the information is. The beep means nothing — nothing! — without all the social understanding surrounding it. For instance:

As Immanuel explains, a beep can mean the exact opposite of the one before it. In his case, some of his dairy farmers beep to say, “there is no milk,” others to say, “there is milk.” The only difference in what Immanuel sees is the number on the missed call log; he uses his knowledge of the relational context and the meaning of past beeps to determine which beeps “mean” what.

This paper reads half like an academic study and half like an awesome, weird Wired or New Yorker article. Check it out. It’s a big world out there.

Posted November 28, 2007 at 10:47 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Society/Culture


Thick description
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In anthropology and other fields, a thick description of a human behaviour is one that explains not just the behaviour, but its context as well, such that the behaviour becomes meaningful to an outsider.

The term was used most famously by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to describe his own method of doing ethnography (Geertz 1973:5-6, 9-10). Since then, the term and the methodology it represents have gained currency in the social sciences and beyond. Today, "thick description" is used in a variety of fields, including the type of literary criticism known as New Historicism.

In Geertz's essay, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture", (Geertz 1973:3-30) he explains that he adopted the term from philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle pointed out that if someone winks at us without a context, we don't know what it means. It might mean the person is attracted to us, that they are trying to communicate secretly, that they understand what you mean, or anything. As the context changes, the meaning of the wink changes.

Geertz argues that all human behaviour is like this. He therefore distinguishes between a thin description, which (to extend our example) describes only the wink itself, and a thick description, which explains the context of the practices and discourse within a society. According to Geertz, the task of the anthropologist is to give thick descriptions.



Once upon a time, when no one ever called and asked, "Where are you?" because the knew you were tethered 5 feet away from an avocado-colored refrigerator, I would use the code of calling, ring once, then call back. This meant, this is damn important, so pick up, already.

Posted by: thebrokedown on November 30, 2007 at 09:51 AM

Hey Robin,

this is fantastic. I forwarded it to my Dad (who's worked in cellular telephony for about 20 years and telecomm his entire career) so that he can forward it to my sister's father-in-law who is credited with inventing the cellphone (no joke) Martin Cooper. We continually tease him about how he changed the whole world, not always for the better, but in this case for the more humorous.

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